HOT DISH: The Mighty Merle Kilgore

He Co-Wrote "Ring of Fire," Managed Hank Jr. and Made Nashville a Lot More Fun

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by former Country Music magazine columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at

I cannot believe Merle Kilgore is gone. Anybody in Music City who did not shed a tear over his death simply never knew the man. When God created Merle, He threw away the mold. Isn’t it wonderful that he passed our way.

Merle Kilgore enjoyed telling stories. One of his best was about his first job when he was 14 years old, carrying Hank Williams’ guitar. His songwriting forte commenced four years later when Webb Pierce took “More and More” to the top of the charts in 1954. Also recorded by Guy Lombardo, Charley Pride had a hit with the song three decades later. In 1959, Johnny Horton went Top 10 with Kilgore’s composition “Johnny Reb.”

During the ’60s, Merle’s success as a songwriter exploded, but he also had hits as a singer. He called himself the Boogie King, appeared in Las Vegas, Carnegie Hall and made Opry appearances. As a solo artist, his biggest hit, “Love Has Made You Beautiful,” went Top 10. But he became best known for his songwriting. “Wolverton Mountain,” a song about Merle’s uncle, gave Claude King his only No. 1 record and remained at the top of the country charts for an incredulous nine weeks, reaching a respectable No. 6 on the pop chart. In 1962, Kilgore came up with the classic “Ring of Fire,” co-written with June Carter Cash. Recorded by Johnny Cash, it’s the song that best defined the relationship between Johnny and June. In 1968, when the couple married, Merle Kilgore served as best man.

In 1964, Audrey Williams and Buddy Lee decided Merle should be the opening act for teenager Hank Williams Jr. For the rest of his life, Merle Kilgore was associated with Hank Jr.

Merle loved to tell the story of how Hank Jr. asked him to be his manager and why he took the gig. Said Merle, “I was sitting across the table from Hank. He scribbled something on a piece of paper. He handed it to me and said, ’That’s how much you will be making a year if you manage me.'” From that day forward, Merle was Hank’s manager. He cut deals right and left, including Hank’s weekly TV appearance on Monday Night Football.

A member of the CMA board of directors, where he served as vice president, Kilgore was an actor and a big-hearted character who conducted big business with humor and good will. He was a member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame and served on its board of directors. He served as president of R.O.P.E. (Reunion of Professional Entertainers) for two years. Last year, when Merle first got sick and was hospitalized for back surgery, he loved it when Kid Rock lovingly called him “Mr. Money Bags” when he dedicated a song to him on the Grammy Awards.

Born in Chickasha, Okla., the 70-year-old Kilgore died of congestive heart failure in Mexico, where he’d gone for cancer treatment. May God rest the soul of this colorful, great man who will be sorely missed.

Sending love and sympathy to Merle’s wife, Judy, his five children, grandchildren and great grandchild, the same goes out to Hank Williams Jr., who not only lost his manager but also his best friend, business partner and the only father figure he truly ever had.

Captain Midnight Memories
Roger “Captain Midnight” Schutt, Outlaw guru to Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser and former DJ, passed away Feb. 8 in Nashville. Some called him a pest, others called him a prince. I traveled many miles with the Captain — walking, riding, talking, learning, working and laughing. Besides the great Tompall, people who will miss the Captain include Kinky Friedman, Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan, his best friend Sharon Howard, Billy Joe Shaver, Kyle Lehning, Bobby Bare and the ladies at the Leah Rose Residence for Senior Citizens where Captain resided.

Seeing Tina
Seeing the great Tina Turner on TV hawking her new CD took me back to the days of the Outlaws when Waylon Jennings wanted to record a duet with Tina. Waylon’s label agreed, Tina’s label agreed, and it was coming down to what song they’d choose. Tina’s then-husband, Ike, put a stop to it. Ike said no. I’d heard the rumors that Ike beat Tina. I wanted to beat the snot out of Ike.

When Ike and Tina came to Music Town, Jessi (Mrs. Waylon) Colter, Waylon’s kids and I were on the front row. What a great show.

Together Gretchen
During her performance at the Super Bowl with Charlie Daniels, Gretchen Wilson shared the stage with Alicia Keys, the Black-Eyed Peas, Earth, Wind & Fire and met ex-presidents Bill Clinton and the senior George Bush. Afterwards, Gretchen was asked who was she most thrilled about hanging with. Without batting an eye, she shot back, “Charlie Daniels.”

Gretchen’s 4-year-old daughter sat between Charlie and his wife, Hazel, during the game.

On the BEEB
An hour-long interview with BBC-TV — and yours truly found it was fun and a learning experience. “We want to do a program on the five kings of country,” said they. So I read up and was ready to talk about George Strait, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith. The Brits had no interest. They wanted me to talk about Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Jim Reeves. So I did — for an hour at the Ryman Auditorium. Boy, do those Brits talk funny. No wonder Prince Charles is gonna marry that Camilla Parker Bowles. Besides being every bit as good looking as the queen, Charles probably can’t understand a word the divorced Bowles says, nor can she understand his chatter.

One Liners
Rascal Flatts’ bass player Jay DeMarcus is in the recording studio, producing a record for the band Chicago.

Toby Keith’s horse has been running at the Santa Anita racetrack in California. That is in the money, honey.

Did you hear about Willie Nelson’s new partnership that will market a new environmentally friendly fuel for buses and trucks called bio-Willie? It’s made from vegetable oils, mostly soy, and works on diesel engines. Will Wesson oil work?

Sellouts were reported at the first three co-headlining dates featuring Montgomery Gentry and Trace Adkins with special guest Cledus T. Judd. Trace leaves it up to me to make fans aware that his next album Songs About Me will be in the stores March 22. And Montgomery Gentry will be stopping off in Atlanta on Wednesday (Feb. 16) to tape an episode with all those Blue Collar Comedy crazies.

Blue Collar’s Larry the Cable Guy generated almost $300,000 for one night’s performance last week. Surely there is not a record label in Nashville that turned down this act. Is there?

Blue Collar master Jeff Foxworthy has signed a six-figure deal with Villard Books to publish his Redneck Dictionary this fall. I have one of Foxworthy’s small dictionaries that I bought at one of those junk stores that used to line Demonbreun near Music Row. Jeff may need my help with the dictionary. In hillbilly medical terms, the word “benign” is what you be after you be eight.

Buddy Jewell sent his wife on a treasure hunt on Valentine’s Day — to the jewelry store!

Toby Keith and Sawyer Brown made it through the seven-mile Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. I hear Mark Miller handed a bystander a 10 spot for some Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sawyer Brown gnawed on KFC during the trek until they reached a fan who wanted a song. Mark swapped a verse of “Some Girls Do” for a bottle of water and then — in front of the mayor of New Orleans — unashamedly danced a jig while hizzoner toasted the group. Lordy, it may end up on CMT.

Did you see Billy Currington’s cover shot for Playgirl? Not a pretty sight.

Yet another Elvis movie is being shot in Memphis for a May air date on CBS-TV.

Grascals Greeting
God blessed me with two fine sons. It is with great pride and much humility that I report to you wonderful CMT fans that the bluegrass group calling themselves the Grascals, who toured with Dolly Parton in 2004, recently made their Grand Ole Opry debut and released their self-titled CD with a party at the Station Inn. Thanks to all the wonderful people who came out and filled the Station Inn. The band regrets that everyone could not get inside. My son Terry plays bass with the group.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Cheeseburger Pie.